Like most graduations, this one featured balloons, a deluge of photos, well wishes from relatives and friends, solemn words of wisdom — and sheet cake with "Congratulations Graduates" inscribed in sugary cursive.

But this first-of-its-kind ceremony celebrated 22 bus drivers who received their diplomas Tuesday at Metro Transit's North Loop Garage in Minneapolis. They will soon take the wheel as critical players in the Twin Cities' transportation infrastructure.

"Without you, there is no transit," said Metro Transit General Manager Lesley Kandaras.

Metro Transit created the graduation as one way to mark progress in its struggle to attract drivers to the fold in recent years. "It's always good to celebrate milestones," said David Stiggers, president of Local 1005 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents drivers, light-rail operators and others. "This is not an easy job."

Metro Transit added more than 400 bus drivers last year as service is slowly restored following a precipitous decline during the pandemic and as new bus-rapid transit lines are being added over the next two years. Currently, there are 1,180 bus drivers and light-rail operators, about 120 below budgeted levels, according to Brian Funk, chief operating officer.

In recent days, ATU members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new contract that calls for 15% pay increase over the next three years. Under the agreement, drivers will start out earning more than $27 an hour. The contract must now be approved by the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit.

No one on Tuesday sugarcoated the challenges the new drivers will face, especially as Metro Transit grapples with crime, homelessness, mental health and substance abuse aboard trains and buses.

Metro Transit has deployed a multipronged strategy to combat these issues. More police and community service officers are patrolling trains and buses. Social workers and other advocates are directing those in need to programs that could help them.

While overall crime on Metro Transit buses and trains increased 32% in 2023 compared with the previous year, it dropped by 25% between the first and final quarter of the year.

Ron Forrest, Metro Transit's deputy chief operating officer, told the drivers they will have to deal with passengers who are hostile, anti-social and suffering from addictions. "You're about to go out and do something that's challenging," Forrest said. "That's the reality."

Several bus driver graduates said in interviews Tuesday that they're well aware of those challenges, but remain undeterred and confident their training can help defuse tough situations.

"I'm ready for anything," said Will Perry, of Minneapolis, who worked with special needs kids at a previous job as a school bus driver.

Annette Hernandez, another graduate from Minneapolis, said she recognizes the struggles some passengers may be experiencing. "I'm an understanding, compassionate person," she said.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, there was a 121% increase in serious assaults against transit workers nationwide between 2008 and 2021, the most recent data available. Local assault data were not available. This prompted the Biden administration last year to require transit agencies to conduct a safety risk assessment and adopt mitigation strategies to minimize or eliminate assaults on operators.

Under Minnesota law, a person who violently interferes with a transit operator could face up three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Keith Alexander, of Minneapolis, said he applied at Metro Transit after seeing job openings advertised on the side of the Route 14 bus. "I worked downtown. I know what goes on," he said.

After working in finance and sales for several years, Alexander said he likes the prospect of a steady job.

"I was tired of waking up in the middle of the night worrying about some number and checking my email," he said. "Here, once you leave, you know you did your job."